A ray of sunshine: Heidi Herrmann has a wide range of hives in her garden Photo: Martin Mulchinock
As colonies collapse around the world, Heidi Herrmann is putting her faith in what is best for the honey-makers, not the consumers.
By Jean Vernon
The honeybee is becoming an endangered species, with the finger of blame pointing in multiple directions. Wild honeybees are nearly extinct in the UK and from 1985-2005 there was a 53 per cent decline in managed honeybee colony numbers. Parasites and disease, climate change and air pollution all have an impact on bee health, but perhaps the most serious of all is the impact of pesticides.
Heidi Herrmann is one of a growing throng of natural beekeepers. She is trustee and co-founder of the Natural Beekeeping Trust, and has been keeping bees for years. Instead of following traditional practice, this movement challenges long-standing methods and processes. Like other members, Heidi has adapted her bee care to suit the bees rather than her own needs.
Heidi, who is German but based in Sussex, used to travel the world as an interpreter, and uses these communication skills to understand her bees. “I speak a few languages, but am most keen to develop the one that my creatures respond to. I guess it is the language of the heart, and that’s hard to learn,” she says.
Now approaching folk heroine status in some beekeeping circles, Heidi has sometimes been described as a shamanic beekeeper. This witch doctor image doesn’t endear her to some traditionalists, but has inspired beekeepers across the world. Today she gives talks and runs workshops for like-minded enthusiasts.
“Bee colonies have very distinct personalities, and I suspect that attributing these differences to the genetics of the queen bee is a little simplistic,” she says. “There is much more involved; grasping the subtle characteristics of a particular colony requires us to make sustained efforts in observation, and to let go of our habitual cause-and-effect thinking.”
Advocates of natural bee-keeping claim better varroa control, and healthier, happier bees, as a result of their hands-off approach. Heidi’s bees are serene, mostly docile and thriving. She rarely wears a bee suit (except when using a lawnmower – bees dislike the vibrations) and regularly collects swarms and handles her bees in her everyday clothes, without being stung. Video clips of her frequent and extraordinary swarm collections abound on YouTube.
One of her most firmly held beliefs is that swarm suppression, a universal technique employed by most conventional beekeepers to prevent bees from leaving the hive and taking honey with them, is not just wrong, but has played a huge part in the decline of the bees.
“Swarming is the natural way for bee colonies to reproduce; it’s their basic strategy for survival and for diversifying the gene pool,” Heidi says. “The motives for its suppression are questionable, and mostly spring from viewing the bees as honey production units. Meddling with the natural forces of reproduction is misguided, I believe,” she warns.
Last summer the Natural Beekeeping Trust hosted a conference at Emerson College in Sussex, drawing together 100 or so like-minded enthusiasts to learn about new ways of understanding bees. The highlight of the conference was the launch of the sun hive.
Heidi has a range of a handpainted hives in her garden (Pic: Martin Mulchinock)
Queen of the sun
Heidi and a friend, beekeeper and biodynamic farmer Peter Brown, spotted the hive on a documentary film called The Queen of the Sun. Both were mesmerised by the idea. A chance encounter with the film’s producer put them in contact with its creator, Guenther Mancke, a German sculptor and master beekeeper. His sun hive is a womblike object that mimics a natural colony.
“When you open a sun hive you confront the archetypal form of a bee colony. There is nothing square in bee life, after all. It makes sense for them to be housed in a container that mimics their true shape,” says Heidi.
The sunhive is ingenious. Based on two skeps, hand-woven from biodynamic rye-straw that fit together like a giant Easter egg, with a board that connects them, it allows the bees to build their combs as they would in the wild. Its unique construction makes the hives fully inspectable – an important advance on the traditional straw skep.
Crucially, the hive is intended to be positioned at least 2.5 metres above the ground. Here it receives more warmth and light than it would at ground level. This height is immensely practical, because the bees can come and go freely. After 20 years of researching the nest-site preferences of the honeybee, author Thomas Seeley found that when a swarm chooses its own site it settles at a height between 2.5 to six metres – and never on the ground.
The fact that you can’t readily buy a sun hive is part of its appeal. To obtain a hive like this requires a certain effort, as it does not lend itself to a production line. The hive is made by hand from rye-straw and it needs a shelter, to protect it from weather. People come together to make hives in special workshops.
Heidi's sun hives in the bien house (Pic: Martin Mulchinock)
An undividable entity
Within the boundaries of her beautiful biodynamic garden on the Sussex Downs, Heidi hosts a great variety of different bee hives, all hand-painted. Centre stage is what she calls the bien (pronounced bean) house. The bien house is a handi-painted, multicoloured, hexagonal shelter. The bien is a German expression and refers to the being of the colony. “The colony is an undividable entity and none of the different parts of the colony makes sense by themselves. They draw their validity out of the totality,” she says. Hanging high up in the roof space, the bien houses a number of what look like giant, egg-shaped sculptures. These are the sun hives.
Elsewhere, there’s a bee room where natural beekeeping classes are held and more recently, workshops to build the new biodynamic sun hive. There’s a bee garden full of flowers and forage, with a flow form that energises the water, another essential element for the bees.
Heidi started out with conventional National hives and still has some of this type, complete with bees. When it comes to natural beekeeping, it is the way that the bees are looked after that makes the critical difference.
Traditionalists might scoff at some of her methods, but the proof of Heidi’s work is in the bees themselves. Each hive houses a healthy colony. Of the 30 colonies that faced last winter every single one survived. Most beekeeping groups reported winter losses in the order of 30 per cent .
The lesson for gardeners
Heidi believes that gardeners can be important defenders of bees: “We need a zero-tolerance policy with bee and wildlife-damaging substances,” says Heidi. “It would be so helpful if we could learn to love a more 'messy’ garden in which our own desires are not so strongly imprinted on nature. The life of the garden becomes so much richer. We need to cultivate meadows wherever we can, and take more interest in the provenance of the seeds and plants we buy.
“I’d like to persuade garden centres to stop selling products containing neonicotinoids [commonly used garden insecticides]. It’s ridiculous that you go into any garden centre and you see all these wonderful labels that say bee-friendly plants, and then you go into the shop and 80 per cent of the products are killers of all insect life. Gardeners could make a lot of difference here; in fact we all can, by changing our consumer behaviour we can achieve a lot for the bees, and all other wildlife. The bees are really teaching us something important here. And I have a feeling that we are all beginning to listen.”
NATURAL BEEKEEPING TIPS
• Keep bees for the bees’ sake and value them as pollinators first (apicentric), and honey producers second.
• Fill your garden with nectar and pollen-rich plants (particularly in February/March and June), and avoid use of chemicals.
• Allow bees to overwinter on their own honey instead of feeding a sugar substitute. Harvest excess honey only in spring when there is sufficient nectar flow.
• Maintain the nest scent and warmth of the hive by opening it only if really needed.
• Allow the bees to reproduce naturally by swarming (this also helps break the varroa cycle).
• Don’t use chemical treatments for disease and pest control (incl varroa mite).
• Don’t cull the drones (sometimes used for varroa control).
• Choose hives that replicate natural sites used by bees, eg hollow trees and cavities.
• Avoid smoking the bees as this can cause undue stress.
• Read The Bee Friendly Beekeeper by David Heaf (NBB, £24.99). For further information about sun hive workshops, visit naturalbeekeepingtrust.org
Read more at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/beekeeping/9790465/Why-natural-beekeeping-could-save-our-honey-making-friends.html